Using waterways to move goods, aid industry or simply for transportation has been done for centuries. But the excellent canals and ports used today didn’t always exist, and sometimes creating them took generations. So it is with the Lachine Canal in Montreal.
One area of this complex of islands in Quebec contain a natural feature called the Lachine Rapids. Like most rapids, they can be fun for adventurers, but they’re a real problem for commercial activity. As early as 1689, less than 50 years after the city’s founding, enterprising locals tried to forge a canal around them. But, owing to government resistance, lack of funds and absence of engineering knowledge it took over a hundred years to become a reality.
But in 1825, the Lachine Canal did finally open, linking Montreal’s harbor to the Ottawa River. Down the canal moved ships large and small bringing goods, transporting people and providing the area with a much needed efficient waterway. It served that purpose for over 100 years, until finally in 1959 it was obsoleted by the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Not surprisingly, the canal and surrounding area then took a turn for the worse, becoming run down and useless. But in 1988, the federal government began efforts to revitalize Lachine Canal, planting trees and creating a small, thin park along its edge. Today, those efforts have blossomed into one of Montreal’s most popular tourist attractions.
Lachine Canal now offers everything from a leisurely walk amid beautiful scenery to kayaking and boat rides and other water-related fun things to do. Private boat owners can take pleasure craft down the canal. Commercial tourist companies offer tours that provide historical overviews of the many old factories that dot the shore.
There are even upscale condos one can buy to enjoy the view. Part of the condos is an existing 150-year old historic tower that was once used to manufacture bullets. Molten lead droplets were let go from the top, forming spheres under gravity and hardening in the cool water 100 feet below.
Since 2002, the canal area has offered visitors a view into Montreal’s fascinating past. The Fur Trade at Lachine is a National Historic site that provides insight into the active exchange that took place along its shores more than two hundred years ago. Part of the tour provides a look at stone warehouses of the Hudson Bay company and others dating from the early 19th century. Not far away there are beautiful old railway bridges, tunnels and pedestrian bridges to explore.
The park area is also an active archaeological site with scientists and interested parties working to uncover aspects of Quebec’s past. Part of the effort involves opening up the huge triangular entrance to the once-active locks that allowed large cargo ships to reach the area.
Kayaking is a popular activity, too. Visitors can join two to six man kayak teams and paddle their way down the canal for a trip that can go on for hours. Many other companies offer two hour and longer relaxing cruises. They sail up and down the canal on comfortable ships along the 14km (8mi) stretch from Old Port to Lake Saint-Louis.
But one of the most pleasant and popular things to do at Lachine Canal is simply take a bicycle tour down the shore and enjoy all the great scenery, snapping a few photos. It isn’t hard to imagine what it looked like 200 years ago, since much of the area is relatively unchanged.
The canal entrance and tours are near Atwater Market in Old Port, with easy access to public transportation. Just take the Metro (Montreal’s subway) to Square Victoria.